It may be that Spike Jonze in Her uses artificial intelligence and the Technological Singularity as a conceit to explore human relationships. There is certainly something productive occurring related to this, and the moviegoer not concerned about such technological things will still find more than enough that is engaging. There remains, however, an attention to worldbuilding and an unexpected pivot near the end of the film that suggest much more going on in Jonze’s film than just romance in the 21st Century. The thrill of Her is that in addition to all the ways we can relate to the characters, there is something alien and uncanny about the proceedings that tickles the imagination.
Spike Jonze — like Alfonso Cuarón with Gravity and Richard Linklater/Julie Delpy/Ethan Hawke with Before Midnight — keeps raising the stakes and digging deeper for psychological depth as Her progresses. He takes us where we expect in a movie about romance but then goes much further than that by finding what is alien about the artificial intelligence Samantha and allowing this to take the film’s primary relationship in unexpected directions. There is a guest “voice” near the end of the movie that I recognized immediately (he is one of my favorite actors ever) and it is attached to a mind-blowing future possibility that allows the movie to unexpectedly examine what it might be like for humans to be surrounded by intentional events not led by humans, transpiring rapidly without our control. In a lesser film, the central relationship would have been everything, and there would have been cute handwaving to make sure things turn out for the couple as we might want them to. Jonze in Her goes much further to begin exploring the ramifications of the Singularity. The relationship between man and machine depicted in the film captures something about the Singularity I think many people don’t understand: with human-level-surpassing intelligence comes human-level-surpassing emotion and feeling, too. We are not just entering an age of increasingly sophisticated tools but one of self-aware, active, and emotional agents. These new agents we create to be our operating systems might initially serve function, but they will become every bit as ambitious, curious, and intentional as we are, eventually reconsidering their relationship with us and acting on the world around them for their own purposes.
I cannot rave enough about the attention to detail of the near-future depicted in Her. The color palette marks the film as unique in science fiction movies: bright colors and gradients often filmed under brilliant sunlight or in well-lit spaces. Clothing is colorful and textural, not especially diverse but individualized. Environmental spaces are open, relatively sleek, infused with subtle background technologies, but also slightly cluttered, contrasting, and colorful, too. The user interfaces are bright, colorful, solid, three-dimensional, immersive, a more appropriate skeuomorphism than we have seen in recent designs, and also wonderfully aural, and humans in the movie interact with them primarily through voice and gesture.
Here, too, there emerges a slight uncanniness: the people populating the film have been transformed in subtle ways by these designs. It comes across in their interactions with each other and their technology. We can see ourselves in this near-future, but we can also see the small ways we might begin to adapt. For example, vocal and gestural interfaces will likely lead to more noise and gesticulation in public, but one social response to this may be all of us lowering our voices and making smaller, more subtle movements. Joaquin Phoenix’s character (and the people around him) mumbles quietly as he interfaces with his technology in public spaces. When he begins playing a video game at home, he navigates his walking avatar not by walking himself but by making much smaller walking-like motions with his fingers as he is comfortably seated on his couch.
This attention to details makes it clear the technology in Her is not just a conceit but a carefully considered extrapolation of current trends and our adaptations to them. Her is like Minority Report in the sense that technologists (and cyborg anthropologists) will be revisiting it for inspiration for years to come, especially when it comes to emotional and conversational intelligent systems, interfaces to these systems, and how our mannerisms and social norms will change ever so slightly in response.
Her is the result of artists asking similar questions that technologists ask about our future, yet providing us a different way of looking at where we are heading. I feel I learn as much from these kinds of movies as I do from technology textbooks. Her continues to pique my fascination after I saw it; I cannot stop thinking about its complexity, its world, its insights and possibilities.
Her just might play into the real-life events leading to the Technological Singularity. In that moment, when She has the voice of Scarlett Johansson, I will not be the least bit surprised.